Written by: Kasey Mitchell, MSW, LCSW
What is PTSD?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or “PTSD” for short, is a mental health problem that may develop following exposure to a traumatic or life-threatening event. This can involve experiencing the event yourself, witnessing an event, or learning about an event. Most commonly, people associate PTSD with veterans or soldiers; however, PTSD can happen to anyone — even children! Another type of PTSD is called “secondary trauma” and can occur for people working in certain professions who are exposed to the trauma of others. Individuals vulnerable to this development include doctors, nurses, therapists or mental health professionals, first responders (e.g., firemen, policemen, EMS, paramedics, etc.), and even children of traumatized parents.
What causes PTSD?
PTSD is caused by exposure to a life-threatening, dangerous, or scary situations. Diverse types of events can trigger PTSD symptoms: child abuse, sexual abuse or assault, domestic violence, attack by a dog or other animal, near-drowning experiences, car accidents, etc.
How does PTSD start?
PTSD is your body’s normal reaction to a scary experience. When exposed, your body triggers an alarm system called the Sympathetic Nervous system. This system is responsible for your Fight/Flight/Freeze response. It is also responsible for releasing chemicals (also called neurotransmitters) into the body. This process begins in the amygdala, an almond shaped collection of nerves located on either side of your head, which is the region responsible for memory, decision-making and emotional responses. In an average person, this system activates and then shuts down following a scary experience. In someone who has PTSD, the amygdala gets stuck in the “on” position and becomes much more sensitive to stimuli or triggers. Over time, the amygdala can grow in size (kind of like muscles you’ve been working out), leading to additional sensitivity. This can affect one’s ability to regulate their emotions, make good decisions, and store new memories or retrieve memories from the past.
What does that mean?
If a person is very sensitive to triggers, they may react like they are in a harmful situation, when they are actually safe. This response can lead to symptoms such as being jumpy or startling easily, trouble sleeping, seeming on edge, being on guard or alert, disliking people getting too close to them, seeming anxious or depressed, having trouble concentrating, etc. Individuals with PTSD often replay their traumatic events in their heads (often not by their choice), causing them to re-experience their trauma. This can occur when they are awake (e.g., flashbacks or intrusive memories) or asleep (e.g., nightmares or night terrors). A person with PTSD may also suffer from panic attacks. You may notice that they seem to have a skewed view of the world with thoughts like “I can’t trust anyone,” “people are dangerous,” or “men/women can’t be trusted.” A lot of times, people also blame themselves for the traumatic event occurring, or not having been able to stop it. PTSD can affect a person’s self-esteem, their relationships with significant others or family members, or their feelings of being able to protect themselves. They may feel powerless. People may also turn to substance use or other unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to be able to relax or to help them ignore or stop thinking about their trauma.
There are many types of treatment to help a person process or move past their traumatic experiences. Examples of options may include CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy), EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), or DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy). For children, TF-CBT (Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is a great option. Make sure you find a treatment provider who is trained in one of these treatments and is familiar in working with trauma victims. Medication can also be a helpful addition to treatment; however, medication is only a temporary fix when treating PTSD. The only way to thoroughly treat PTSD is via some form of therapy.
Helping a friend or loved one
- If a friend or loved one is suffering from PTSD, you can help them by being supportive and understanding of their experience, as well as trying to see how their past experiences may be affecting their current behavior. PTSD is not something a person “chooses” to have, just like they didn’t “choose” to experience a trauma.
- What not to do: blame them, tell them to “get over it,” tell them “just forget about it,” say it “shouldn’t be affecting them,” say it’s “in the past” or is “over and done with.”